Janice Neal is celebrating 30 years with the Public Education Foundation, making her the longest-serving employee at the nonprofit group.
Over the years, she's affected the careers and lives of an immeasurable number of youths, according to those who know her, and they said Neal knows no bounds when it comes to helping launch students' careers.
The foundation is dedicated to advancing student achievement in Hamilton County by providing research, resources and training to students and educators.
Neal serves as the assistant director for college and career success. She organizes programs like Camp College, Passport Scholars and Step Up Chattanooga.
But her official title aside, Neal said her true mission is helping students navigate their life paths.
"I think my purpose on this Earth is to help other people realize their journey and what their journey looks like," Neal said, adding that success looks different for every student.
"For some students, success may be that they've graduated from high school and now they're thinking about joining, for example, a [Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology] program instead of going to a four-year college," Neal said.
The nonprofit group offers leadership training, college mentorship and internship opportunities to around 1,000 students each year, said the organization's director of student success, Michelle Caldwell.
Through Step Up, the organization's workforce development program, about 130 students are placed in internships annually.
"This helps students realize what goes into making an informed decision about life after high school. College isn't just four years, it's anything that you're doing after you graduate from high school. And so, we talk to them about making an informed decision. We talked to them about best fit because best fit may or may not be our local colleges," Neal said.
Aimen Shahbaz, a student at Hixson High School, said Neal, Camp College and Step Up changed her life. Shahbaz moved to Tennessee from Pakistan in 2020, and as she began to think about college and her career, she didn't know where to start.
"When I came here, I [didn't] know anything about colleges, schools," Shahbaz said. "I didn't know about jobs. I didn't know about work. So, she helped me with those things."
Neal helped enroll Shahbaz in Camp College, which offers low-income and first-generation college students a chance to preview campus life by attending Sewanee: The University of the South for two days in the summer.
There, Shahbaz learned about BlueSky Tennessee Institute, an accelerated tech degree program, which she'll be attending this fall. The institute is a collaboration between BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and East Tennessee State University.
Shahbaz is also being recognized with a Rotary Youth Leadership Award, which comes with intensive leadership experience organized by local Rotary clubs to teach leadership skills. Neal helped Shahbaz apply.
"That was a big thing for me," Shahbaz said. "Nobody ever did those things for me, not even in my high school. That kind of confidence, she gives confidence to me."
Inspiring confidence is why when Neal works with students, she encourages them to ditch the idea of thinking outside the box.
"Realize there is no box," Neal said she often says. "I tell students their end goal is not college. Their end goal is a career. And so, what is it that you want to do that you can make a difference in? I don't have a job. I have a career because I enjoy what I do."
Dan Challener, president of the foundation, said Neal has shaped the organization's student-first culture over the years.
"The focus on what's best for students is really, I think, one of [her] central contributions because she's relentless on that focus," Challener said. "That's what we do. And Janice embodies that in really important ways."
Caldwell, the student success director, echoed his sentiments.
"She will do anything she can to make sure that [students] are positioned for success," Caldwell said. "And sometimes that means she uses her own personal money or personal time."
Neal started with the organization in 1992 as an assistant to the then-president and has worked with people of all ages throughout her career. But she didn't always know she'd eventually help students launch their careers.
Neal graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in business management, originally thinking she wanted to go into business law. However, she decided she didn't like that side of herself.
"I ended up, because of my family at UTC, they told me about an opportunity at the Public Education Foundation when it was just getting started," Neal said.
She had spent a year substitute teaching and enjoyed the experience but didn't appreciate the bureaucracy that came with schools.
"I actually have the best of both worlds working at the Public Education Foundation putting my business side and my education side and my passions together," Neal said.
Challener said Neal was the first person he met when he started at the organization 20 years ago, and her dedication has never wavered.
"The first time I came to Chattanooga, for whatever reasons, they flew me into Nashville. And Janice was so concerned about me driving down Monteagle that she drove up and met me at the airplane and drove me down Monteagle, so that I would get to Chattanooga safely," Challener said.
Neal's long-lasting dedication also extends to her students, with whom she maintains relationships long after they leave.
"I tell students in the programs that I oversee that they become my children. I will stay in contact with them whether they want me to or not. So, I have some students who have graduated from college, and we're still in touch," Neal said.
Bethsy Harrigan is one of Neal's "children." The two have stayed in touch since Harrigan was in 10th grade — about six years. Now, Harrigan is preparing to graduate from Vanderbilt University with a degree in psychology and public health.
"[Neal] was definitely a mentor," Harrigan said. "She pushed me out of my comfort zone. I was very shy. I was able to communicate with people, but I will say it made a difference in how confident I felt in corporate environments."
Harrigan spent last summer interning at the foundation, and she recalls how Neal gave all the interns a gift before their departure back to college.
"She gave us a container where you can make pasta in the microwave," Harrigan said. "And that was really touching to me ... because she still went out of her way to gift us with something as we were leaving even though she had already poured into us the whole semester."
Neal calls herself a lifelong learner, and that's one of the reasons why she's stuck with the foundation.
"I believe that I'm a lifelong learner," Neal said. "I find a lesson and something positive in everything that I do. So, you can either focus on the negatives or you can focus on the lessons to be learned. And I choose to focus on the lessons to be learned."
Neal looks forward to the group's upcoming summer programs.
"I'm so excited to see these new faces and to watch them learn and realize that they are stronger than what they think," Neal said. "They are brilliant young people. Sometimes, some people may not have told them that, so they doubt themselves. My role is to encourage them and keep them motivated."